An NGO approach to pollution mapping

Guest post by Li Cheng, chinadialogue Beijing Office’s intern.

In the ongoing debate surrounding PM2.5 (a type of fine particulate matter), there are some who have begun to question the causes of our current state of air quality. At the 15th “Blue Sky Map – Positioning Industrial Sources of Pollution” conference, Ma Jun, chair of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), argued that industrial sources of pollution are central to the wider problem of atmospheric pollution. National total emissions of PM2.5 from industry reached levels of 9.059 tonnes in 2007, far exceeding emissions from households, transport, or that of biomass combustion.

Reports have shown that the electric power-generation industry is responsible for generating the greatest amount of pollution. The IPE ascertained from the Department of Environmental Management that among 4,400 of China’s worst-offending waste-gas polluters, 1,178 of those firms were in electric-power related industries, accounting for 34% of the total industries targeted for waste gas monitoring and control.

Looking at the distribution of emitters, the developed regions of the east show the greatest concentration; the central regions show a few highly concentrated areas; and in the western provinces, the Chongqing-Chengdu and Ningxia economic zone, the inner Mongolian strip and the Shaanxi Wei river basin all show similarly high levels of concentration.

Meanwhile, air pollution has produced some serious environmental costs. In 2004, nationally, the cost of managing waste gas amounted to 47.82 billion yuan, while the total “virtual cost” (including hidden costs) of treating waste gas was 92.23 billion yuan. The cost of the environmental degradation from severe air pollution came to 219.8 billion yuan, 42.9% of the total cost of overall environmental degradation. Moreover, the huge costs imposed here do not take into account the cost to urban residents, and the detrimental effects on their health and living standards.

The law is still under-developed in China regarding public release of data on industrial emissions levels, however public availability of this type of information and data on industrial pollution is the norm in most industrialised countries. In 1986, the U.S. established the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) guidelines, whilst the E.U. in 2003 agreed on the “Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers Protocol” (or PRTR).

On the goals of the “Blue Sky Map” conference, Ma Jun stressed that: “in order to solve the problem of air pollution, we need to control our emissions of pollutants; and in order to control pollution emissions, we first have to identify the sources of pollution. Given that the sources of pollution are complex, coupled with the laxness of China’s environmental regulation, we have a situation where the cost of breaking the law is relatively low. There is a need for the public to understand where the sources of pollution are, then they can partake in the future supervision and management of the problem of air pollution.”

Translated by chinadialogue volunteer Yunnan Chen